I started writing this post a couple weeks ago and It's gone through a lot of transitions and rewrites since I began. At first I wanted to write about depression and suicide but I couldn't seem to find a way to make that palatable. Since I'm a guy who writes about silly elements of life, it felt a little out of character (at least for this manifestation of my "Blogger" persona). I don't know if it comes through on this blog but the real me can actually be pretty dark. Like a lot of people, I have depression and this blog is one of the ways I have privately (and publicly) attempted to cope. Usually when a celebrity dies and fans pay tribute by getting a tattoo or something it makes my eyes roll, even if I liked said celebrity, but the suicide of Anthony Bourdain has affected me in a way that no other celebrity death has...ever! So instead of getting a tacky portrait of Tony between my shoulder blades, I decided to write a blog post about him.
Here is what I ended up with, I just hope it does him justice:
It's amazing to witness the old models of entertainment, like T.V. and radio, beginning to fade like so many other outdated media. I don’t even subscribe to cable anymore and to be honest with you, the only thing I really miss is sports. In the mid 2000’s however, I was as “cabled up,” as the next guy and I had a very specific rotation of channels that I would frequent, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, ESPN and even the news networks if I wanted to see what was “Breaking” (even in those days something was always “Breaking”).
Travel Channel first found it’s way onto my radar for a show called Bizzare Foods, with a quirky little bald guy named Andrew Zimmern. In those days I didn't like food shows, but this one seemed pretty out there, I have a unique interest in things that are bizarre and his show didn't disappoint. This dude eats bugs, lizards, rotten meat, slimy fish, and Balut...I'm not even gonna describe that one, look it up! B-A-L-U-T go ahead I'll give you a second.
Directly after Bizzarre Foods (or maybe it was right before, I can’t remember) was another show that had a slightly similar premise, but an entirely different style, and the host of this show couldn’t have been more different than Zimmern. If you showed me a photo of this other guy before knowing who he was, I would have guessed he was a washed up drummer from some “Zepplinesque” 70’s rock band (but still cool in that rock star kind of way). He wasn’t an “ugly” guy, but his look had an unmistakable character to it that spelled out some pretty specific things: smoker, boozer, probably not a stranger to drugs (at least in the past) and undeniably cool. The show was called No Reservations and for me, as a cynical alcohol fueled know-it-all in his 20’s who dreamed of traveling and finding a reason to trust humanity again, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The host, Anthony Bourdain, was my new favorite person on T.V.
No Reservations wasn’t really about food at all…it was about places and people (well...food too). Narratives of history, drama, comedy, tragedy and even politics mixed with incredible cinematography and editing made this show unparalleled, but it was Bourdain, author of a New York Times bestseller “Kitchen Confidential,” (great book by the way, I'm reading it again) who gave the show its character.
For the younger folks, who don’t know what it was like to grow up with only T.V. as our screen based entertainment, we as T.V. viewers were used to a certain profile of hosts on shows like this and Bourdain did NOT fit this profile. He wasn’t a celebrity chef with his catch phrase (and face) plastered all over the grocery store, he wasn’t a re-purposed actor who was running out of things to be “tried” in, nor was he a “successful” actor who just went through a divorce and in a desperate act to hang on to his private jet took an offer from the Travel Channel.
Anthony Bourdain (he went by Tony sometimes) was a guy who, while talented and charismatic, had spent a lot of his life failing and starting over. A former heroin addict, his image (along with the booze and the drugs) included the inspirational message that you’re really never out of the game of life if you simply refuse to give up hope, and it’s these facts that make Bordain’s suicide particularly difficult, although not particularly shocking.
There’s been lots of talk in the media about suicide these past couple weeks and I don’t want to repeat what’s obvious. I’m sure being famous comes with pressures that are impossible to imagine until you are standing in the limelight so I won’t try to project Tony’s struggles onto him. Part of his persona was his cynicism and I think one of his most appealing characteristics was his ability to find a real working balance between that cynicism and a more positive outlook. He regularly challenged his own notions and worldview on his shows, and in his writing, and there was something in that I found very inspiring even as a fellow cynic. This, of course, drives the point home of why it’s so hard to watch his story end this way.
Maybe Bourdain would hate my perspective, but I think that “hope” was one of his most driving and interesting dichotomies. Not just hope that one can overcome addiction and failure but hope that the world isn’t as ugly and terrible as even the darkest of perspectives may suggest. As young people we are driven by hope in many different capacities, even if our attitude sucks! We all still hope we will find love, we all still hope we will prosper, we all hope that we will never stop learning and experiencing life. As we get older, a bitter element of age is the sensation that this "hope" is slipping away as the weight of exogenous consequences and circumstances put things (like travel plans) on higher and higher proverbial shelves. But Bourdain showed us, through his own narrative, that you can’t ever let those things be your reasons for surrendering your ambition or thoughts of adventure. They are partly what keep us going, the thoughts of “someday,” even into our later years, and I truly believe we want to know and meet people who show us that these hopes are not unfounded…that they are not just abstractions in our own minds. For me, Bourdain was the living, walking, cigarette-breathing embodiment of that abstraction, even if I only knew him through my T.V. screen. He carried himself as if he always knew that he was going to end up on T.V., traveling, experiencing, writing, but most importantly, showing us why you never give up hope.
I’ve learned over the years (and I’m sure Tony would agree) that it’s neither fair nor wise to make anyone into a hero. As a rebel and philosopher, Tony despised things like foolish demagoguery, and I don’t think he would appreciate having it thrust in his direction, so I’ll spare him the grandiose nomenclature. Instead, I’ll end with some words that I think he would approve of, words that I believe encapsulate the great message that his career represents, words that he said in many ways and at many different times and that represent the motivation for nearly everything he wrote and did:
There’s so much we don’t know.
I’m just humbled and grateful that we all got to know him.